The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence deserve their fame. They turned the American Revolution into a national project and invented a new kind of country for the world to behold.
But they didn’t start the revolution.
By the early summer of 1776, before Thomas Jefferson unveiled his masterpiece, at least 90 towns, counties, militia units and other groups had already declared their independence from the British Empire. The modern holiday forgets these revolutionaries and the thousands of other colonists they represented. That’s a shame — not because they were especially heroic, but rather because they were ordinary people with real-world problems who nonetheless decided to reject the past and try something new.
Who were they? What were they protesting? Beyond the hallowed halls of the Continental Congress, how did resistance turn into rebellion?
We might start in Boston during the 1760s, when a recession was in full swing, made worse by new imperial taxes. This seaport was full of poor women who had been widowed by the empire’s latest wars and with unemployed sailors who despised the city’s crown-connected elite. Huge crowds attacked not only tax collectors but also mansions, carriages and other symbols of wealth.
Artisans and farmers from New England to Pennsylvania also raged against laws that prevented the colonies from printing their own money. Now they had to pay their debts to British creditors in coin, which they rarely had. Entire communities responded first with angry petitions and then by intervening to stop foreclosures and auctions.
Farther south and west, ethnic grievances intensified the unrest. Scottish families worried that recent laws requiring couples in England to make their wedding vows in Anglican churches might start being enforced in their settlements. They preferred to wed as Presbyterians or to simply live together as common-law couples. So they roughed up Anglican missionaries, avoided census takers and held to their own forms of worship or impiety. They also accused crown officials of favoring “heathen” Indians over white Christians.
The British had indeed marked native territory beyond the Appalachians as off-limits to white subjects with the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763. Ignoring the line, George Washington told a surveyor in his employ to keep scouting the Ohio River Valley. Virginians such as Washington coveted those western lands. They’d ruined eastern soils with tobacco monoculture and feared that if they didn’t find a way to expand, their enslaved laborers might have idle time to rebel, as had happened in the more lucrative colony of Jamaica in 1760.
Although Britain profited hugely from slavery, British authorities preferred to keep it outside the British Isles, which was seen as an insult by American slave owners who wanted to be considered fully British. Worse, royal governors were sometimes willing to ally with black or native men against rebellious masters. Southern whites saw this as a declaration of war against their very homes.
Put simply, the patriots of the 1760s and early 1770s were a motley crew of widows and workers, sailors and squatters, slave holders and fortune seekers driven by diverse and often unsavory motives. At the time, they sounded much like their contemporaries across the Atlantic: loud, proud, always citing their rights under the British “Constitution,” the general term for the established laws and governmental forms of the empire. They assumed that this constitution was perfect and never dared to think beyond it.
But in 1774-75, these colonists realized that the British didn’t care about them. For the first time, they saw the constitution for what it was, a rickety assemblage of old compromises and narrow privileges that kept power away from them.
Once its spell over colonial hearts and minds had been broken, royal authority fell apart rather quickly. Patriot “committees of safety” took over much of the countryside. The first Loyalists fled to England. In May 1776, Rhode Island’s legislature stopped issuing documents in the name of the king. In June, New Jersey’s assembly had the royal governor arrested, while Pennsylvania radicals pushed for a new constitution with a much larger electorate and the power to combat inequalities of wealth.
By July 3, 1776, the day before Jefferson’s declaration went public, John Adams could only marvel at “the Suddenness, as well as the Greatness of this Revolution.” He and the other founders then sought to lead, temper and often contain it.
Instead of making our usual nod to those legendary figures, we might use this July 4 to remember our deeper revolutionary roots, warts and all. They remind us that our country was born in discord and defiance, in the chaos of experimentation and the thrilling sense that the future is not set.